Caleb James: A Man of Many Moves

CJ10 armchair.

Here’s what I knew about Caleb James before I interviewed him for this profile:

He makes hardwood spokeshaves that are handsome enough to qualify as sculpture, in addition to being a joy to use. The spokeshaves alone made Caleb worthy of a profile.He makes Danish Modern chairs based on original designs by Hans Wegner, and those chairs are not just comfortable, but marvels of craftsmanship.He is a devoted family man with a wife and two daughters.He’s a clean-cut guy who dresses nicely.He has a refreshingly down-to-earth take on woodworking, especially when it comes to making furniture and tools as a livelihood.

I had no idea that Caleb does all this while living with an auto-immune disorder, nor that he’d spent years making a good living by selling household appliances – never mind that he once dreamed of being a helicopter pilot and went a good way toward achieving that goal before life caused him to change course.

Caleb with his wife, Tracy, and daughters Claire (left) and Petra. (Photo: Kelsey Joy Hefner http://www.kelseyjoyphoto.com.)

We spoke by phone on a recent weekend. Caleb was working at home, at the end of a street 5 miles from downtown Greenville, S.C., where he and his family have lived for eight years. “All you see is woods at the back of the house,” he told me. There are deer, bears and wild turkeys just outside the back door. A deer was foraging in the woods about 40 yards away as we spoke.

Caleb’s father, Bill James (left), with his uncle, Steve James, in their military uniforms.

The South has always been Caleb’s region. He was born in 1981 in the Gulf Coast town of Ocean Springs, Miss., where his father, a Vietnam War veteran and a framing carpenter by trade, worked for a manufacturer of mobile homes. When Caleb was 5, his parents split up and he moved with his dad to northern Arkansas, which had originally been home to his father’s family. A few years later they moved to Branson, Mo. After that he lived in St. Louis, where his mother had moved to be near her sister and was attending night school through a community college program while supporting herself by waiting tables; following her training she became a legal secretary.

Caleb’s parents with Caleb (in his father’s lap) and his brother Abe.

That’s a lot of moving. By the time Caleb was in ninth grade, he’d attended 11 different schools and was living with extended family and friends while working for his aunt, who ran a roadside fruit stand. At 14 he dropped out of public school and did his best to keep learning while employed as a dishwasher and waiter. He took college courses in air conditioning and appliance repair work, and earned a GED certificate.

At 17 Caleb moved to Texas; his mother, aunt and two brothers were living outside of Houston. His brother ran a stucco business and invited him to work there; they worked in traditional stucco, as well as Drivit, a cladding system that resembles stucco while enhancing a building’s insulation. Working outside in south Texas weather was not a viable long-term gig for “a white kid out in the sun,” as Caleb puts it. “It wasn’t something I thought I would survive at for very long.” Even his hands got sunburned.

He took a job working for a guy who bought used appliances from Sears – the washers, stoves and refrigerators hauled away from homes where customers had replaced them with new ones. His boss sold the used appliances in Mexico. Caleb was in charge of loading the truck that headed south across the border. “We would stack them to the ceiling,” he laughs. “Needless to say, I was in the best shape of my life.” When his boss expanded into buying and selling appliances that were slightly blemished (“scratch and dents”), one of his fellow employees suggested they repair the damaged appliances and retail them locally rather than sell them wholesale. Caleb found he had an uncanny knack for repairing appliances and removing blemishes. Retail sales exploded. The company he worked for initially had three employees; within three years they had 30.

It was steady work that paid well. “I really didn’t think about much more than survival,” he says of that time. Even so, Caleb played a central role in the business and ended up making better money than he’d ever anticipated.

Caleb and Tracy with helicopter.

He wanted to go back to school and train to be a helicopter pilot. Because his father was a disabled veteran, Caleb could go to school under the G.I. Bill until he turned 26. The authorities approved him for the commercial helicopter pilot program, but the Veterans Administration “pulled the payment” shortly before he completed the private pilot portion of the training – he learned that they were legally permitted to do so by some fine print in the G.I. Bill. So he decided to build on his experience with kitchen appliances.

An Appliance Business of Their Own

In late 2003, at the age of 22, Caleb and his brother, Jeremiah, started a business selling blemished appliances of better quality, among them Gaggenau, Wolf, Thermador and Sub-Zero. They focused on kitchen appliances because kitchen remodeling was big business at the time; it was before the Great Recession, which devastated so much of the housing and remodeling market. “If you’ve got a built-in oven and it’s got a ding on the back side, it really makes no difference. We were a perfect option; if you were going to pay $1,000 for an oven, you could buy it from us [instead] for $500 – $600.”

Caleb and Tracy on their wedding day.

Caleb met his wife, Tracy, through their church community in Houston. Both are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Tracy is from the Canadian town of High Prairie in the province of Alberta. Coming from a family of avid travelers, she had set out on her own at 17 to visit friends in Texas. After she and Caleb met at a church service they stayed in touch; about a year and a half later, they were married. It was the only way they could continue their relationship, he notes – “I couldn’t move [to Canada], and she couldn’t move to the States.” They celebrated their 20th anniversary this past May.

“Maybe my first woodworking project for my home,” Caleb calls this. “A plywood box to put my stereo/DVD entertainment components on, circa 2006.”

In around 2006, Caleb bought a table saw at a yard sale so he could build stuff for their home – “You buy your first house, and then you start building furniture,” he says. Plywood was one of his go-to materials. “A turning point was making an end table,” he says. He made the top and aprons, “having really no idea of what I was doing,” then proudly showed the piece to a cabinetmaker friend. “The look on his face was, ‘Wow, this is terrible.’ At that point I realized I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just kind of piddled with woodworking.”

The following year an acquaintance called out of the blue to tell Caleb about a gentleman who was retiring. He wanted to sell his shop equipment and wondered whether Caleb and Jeremiah might be interested in reselling it. They went to take a look. Faced with a 5-horsepower Delta cabinet saw and dust collector going for $275 (for both), Caleb “quickly realized ‘here’s some equipment I want to keep for myself.’ I was always interested in woodworking.” At that point his training consisted of 7th-grade woodshop class, augmented by what he’d learned through exposure to his father’s carpentry work. He started reading books on the subject; specifically, he cites the series of books by Danish-American furniture maker Tage Frid. Rounding out the year, Tracy and Caleb had their first child, Claire, that December.

Caleb grew more and more interested in woodworking. He appreciated the solitude of the work, which he found therapeutic. He was drawn to Danish Modern design, and also experimented with Windsor chairs and tried steam-bending parts in the garage. People would tell him his work was nice and ask whether he made it to sell. “I don’t have time,” he’d respond. He was building furniture at night and on weekends. But when he started to think about leaving the appliance business he posted some work on Etsy. It sold. “Here I am working every day at my normal business,” he continues, “and I get to a point [where I] ask myself ‘what are you doing? Do you just want to work all the time?’” By the time the James’ second daughter, Petra, was born in May, 2011, Caleb had signed the papers to sell his stake in the appliance business to Jeremiah.

Transition to Professional Woodworking

Caleb’s first large orders were for beds. A contact in Houston who had recently taken over a historic hardware storefront in Rice Village wanted to add local handcrafted furniture to his already hard-to-find items. He was already selling his own line of paints that were free of volatile organic compounds, specialty rubber mattresses, and more, and was looking for a craftsman to represent; he figured that if people were spending $8,000 on a mattress, maybe they’d also spend $3,000 or $4,000 on a bed. In addition to building beds, Caleb continued to sell chairs on Etsy and took commissions through an architect in Charleston.

Tracy “is a go-go-go” person, Caleb says; she loves to learn new things and be involved with people. He, on the other hand, “would probably stay and work in my shop and never leave home unless I was forced to.” When they were living in Katy, a suburb of Houston, Tracy took a course in computer drafting and worked part-time as draftsperson for an electrical company. When Caleb and Jeremiah started the appliance business he convinced her to join them; she handled sales and logistics while Caleb ran the warehouse. He calls her “a perfect salesperson. She has a knack for it – probably because she’s genuine.” Her interest in interior design didn’t hurt, either; clients appreciated her enthusiasm and readiness to go beyond the minimum required when dealing with their projects. She grew into the role of sales manager and kept that up until they sold the business in 2011. Tracy continued to do electrical design part-time while Caleb switched to full-time woodworking in his shop at home.

Caleb has had an unnamed auto-immune disorder since his late teens. After the family moved to Greenville in 2013, he became extremely anemic and developed some other health problems. He had discovered he had celiac disease in 2008; other health challenges appeared to stem from this condition. It took about a year to figure out what was going on and get back on track. Caleb now takes many supplements because he doesn’t absorb nutrients adequately.

While he was having health problems he found himself unable to handle heavy materials – “I’d be worn out in 45 minutes,” he remembers. A few years earlier he’d taught himself to make side-escapement planes, appreciating that a purpose-designed handplane would work well for some of the coped joints he used in chairmaking. He learned a lot from a Lie-Nielsen Toolworks video of Larry Williams on making tools. “I would make a bunch of furniture for somebody, then spend a couple of days making hand tools.”

Side escapement panel-raising plane.

During this period, Tracy worked full-time for about 1-1/2 years. “I was Mister Mom,” he says. It’s one of his favorite jobs.

Handplanes were a product he could make with limited strength and energy, so he started making them, even though he had no idea whether anyone would buy them. As it happened, Peter Galbert, with whom he’d taken a class, called to say he was going to be a presenter at Woodworking in America (WIA) and asked whether Caleb might like to demonstrate turning techniques at his booth; he pointed out that it would also be a good opportunity to gauge interest in his planes.

Fore or Jack plane.
Thumbnail plane in pear.

Hard as it might be to imagine, Caleb was a total stranger to the larger woodworking world in 2013, so he calls attending WIA that year “kind of a new experience for me.” A Lee Valley Tools representative approached him with a colleague, Fred West, who was known for buying and collecting tools. Fred, says Caleb, was reputed to be the kind of person who, “if he liked what you did, would buy as much of your stuff as he could, to try to help you.” He placed an order for almost $5,000-worth of Caleb’s tools, which convinced Caleb that tool making could be a viable way to make a living. Deneb Puchalski of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks invited Caleb to join the company at events around the country, at no cost. “I was very flattered,” recalls Caleb, “and thought this was a great opportunity.” He got his shop in order. Fortunately, he had already brought in a store of beech for the work.

Not long after his introduction to the woodworking community at WIA, Caleb met Christopher Schwarz at another tool event, this one in Charleston. Chris had been blogging about Danish furniture and asked if he could blog about Caleb’s tools, adding, “You ought to write a book on Danish Modern furniture for me.” Caleb had been blogging about his Danish furniture for a couple of years by then; he suspects Chris may have seen his posts, which prompted the offer.

“I thought he must have been joking,” Caleb remembers. “The next day he mentioned it to me again, with ‘I’m not joking. I don’t make this kind of offer unless I’m serious.’”

“I chewed on that” for several years, says Caleb – not least because he was so busy making handplanes, thanks to a blog post Chris had written about a side bead plane that Caleb had started producing. That post resulted in orders for about 100 planes in 36 hours at WIA. “I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he says. Although he had made dozens of planes, he’d only sold a small number of them before this avalanche of orders. He stopped taking more orders, unsure whether he’d be able to fill them all. As Caleb puts it, “I just wanted to make sure if this was a bad idea it didn’t get any worse!”

Luckily, things worked out. He made side escapement planes for about three years, building scarcely any furniture during that time. Then he turned to spokeshaves for a couple of years. “So I’ve spent as much time doing tools as furniture.” And he’s working on that book.

Training

Caleb attributes his proficiency in part to watching his father build things. His dad never felt any hesitation, he says; instead, his attitude was “If you need it…just build it yourself.”

“I’m very much an auto-didact,” he continues. “I have no problem reading about something, then thinking through it.” That said, he doesn’t consider himself self-taught; as he sees it, “I learned from books.”

He did take one class with Peter Galbert circa 2011, because he wanted to spend time with someone who was making a living from their craft. He wasn’t building chairs like Pete’s; he just wanted to see how Pete was making chairs for a living. Caleb told Pete he was building chairs of his own for a living, in response to which Pete “dropped a big stack of his plans on the bench” and gave Caleb permission to build as many of his designs as he might wish, and sell them – a generous offer that Caleb appreciated, even though he didn’t build any of Pete’s designs for sale. He had his own ideas.

Pete, in turn, had learned a lot from Curtis Buchanan. Curtis contacted Caleb after Pete told him Caleb was good at drawing. Curtis proposed a swap: Draw a chair for Curtis and take a class in payment. So Caleb took a two-week comb-back armchair class; that was the chair Curtis wanted him to draw. Caleb found he had to redo the drawing multiple times “because Curtis builds ‘by feeling’; you had to unpack what his design was” in order to draw it on paper. That process took him into drafting on the computer, which made edits easier. Caleb produced two sets of drawings: the comb-back armchair and a continuous armchair. When they came to a third drawing, he told Curtis that he wasn’t a professional draftsperson and they should find a professional. He and Curtis happened upon Jeff Lefkowitz after a few failed attempts with other professionals. Jeff was already doing the manuals for Brian Boggs chairs, he says, “and did a fantastic job going forward.”

On Woodworking

“I try to avoid a philosophy with my woodworking and just do it,” Caleb answers when I ask for his thoughts about the larger woodworking picture. “I’m very much a ‘do what works and make it fit the application’ person.” While some woodworkers say “OMG, I would never buy anything from Ikea,” he says “I can’t afford to make all my own furniture. Here’s this nice solid-wood pine bunk bed, which probably used fewer materials [anyway]. I could probably take it apart and ship it to someone else after my girls outgrow it.” On the other hand, when it comes to his own work, he makes every chair to the best of his abilities and charges a premium price, even if that’s an indulgence for him and his client. He finds more appeal in Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea that “‘the home will be consumed by the environment at some point.’ If it lasts the entire lifetime of one individual, great. If you can hand it on to someone else after a lifetime [of use], that’s even better.” Caleb thinks of himself as pragmatic.

“I really avoid the philosophical discussion of woodworking, especially in social media,” he continues. “It feels like a source of argument. Opinions in that environment often turn into dogma. And in the end, I don’t know that any of it matters. ‘That’s great,’” he says, as if talking with an acquaintance, “‘have a discussion with your buddy when you’re geeking out on it, and then just leave it there.’”

Someone recently asked how people reacted when he started showing more machines in Instagram posts about his work. “‘Did they react to you like when Bob Dylan started playing electric guitar?’” he recalls. “I laughed. Because I never try to present that all my woodworking is hand tool woodworking. It’s not. I’ve always used power tools to make my hand tools! It depends on your objective. My feeling is, every tool is equal. You use it for what it should be used for. Sometimes I’m working for therapeutic purposes. But then my objective might be to execute a design. And then there’s, ‘maybe my purpose is to make this piece at a price point that’s appropriate to my client and me.’ I just use the right tool for the job and don’t worry about the rest.”

Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work

Here’s what I knew about Caleb James before I interviewed him for this profile: He makes hardwood spokeshaves that are handsome enough to qualify as sculpture, in addition to being a joy to use. The spokeshaves alone made Caleb worthy of a profile. He makes Danish Modern chairs based on original designs by Hans Wegner,…Read MoreUncategorizedLost Art PressRead More

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